January 21, 2021

Raptors still looking to iron out rotation and roles

8 min read
A new year often brings with it new possibilities, and for the Toronto Raptors that...

A new year often brings with it new possibilities, and for the Toronto Raptors that certainly seems to be the case.

Picking up their first victory of the season with a 100-83 rout of the New York Knicks Thursday evening, the Raptors still have a lot to figure out about themselves, particularly in terms of their rotation and roles.

Of course, the surprise announcement that the Raptors were giving Pascal Siakam the night off for disciplinary reasons just before their New Year’s Eve tilt with the Knicks played a factor, but the level of experimentation seen from Raptors coach Nick Nurse in the game suggested he’s still probing and searching for more consistent answers across the board.

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The team is still only four games into its season, but some level of role certainty would be a better look instead of what has appeared to be a bit of scramble from Nurse, searching for answers all throughout games.

Here’s a quick glance at some of the clutter the Raptors are dealing with right now.

Norm dilemma … again

Over the course of his career, a common trend with Norman Powell has been the splits he’s put up between starting and coming off the bench.

A perfect example is what we saw in regards to this last season, where he played 26 games each as a starter and as a key bench piece.

In contests that he earned the start, Powell averaged 18.7 points per game, shooting 52.2 per cent from the field and 44.4 per cent from deep. When he came off the bench, however, he only averaged 13.2 points, shooting 46 per cent from the floor and 34.2 per cent from three-point range.

Powell did play more minutes as a starter, averaging a little more than 31 per game as opposed to the 26 per contest he would get coming off the bench, but that’s still a large difference in production and we saw a small example of that play out once again Thursday night.

In Toronto’s first three games this season, Powell was averaging a measly six points per game on a truly abysmal 17.4 per cent from the field, but with Siakam being disciplined Thursday, Powell drew into the starting lineup and popped off for 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting.

Powell was quickly able to establish himself, scoring seven of Toronto’s first 10 points, something that seemed to jumpstart his game and led to his best performance of the season.

If there is a podcasting odd couple, this might be it. Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis don’t agree on much, but you’ll agree this is the best Toronto Raptors podcast going.

So this begs the question once again, if the Raptors seem to be getting consistently better performances out of Powell as a starter, would it not make more sense to make him a full-time member of the first unit?

It’s something that Nurse has wrestled with before and after Thursday’s performance he may be giving it another long look.

“I think it needs some consideration,” Nurse said of Powell perhaps more permanently acting as a starter. “I think the statistics really bear it out. For sure. So I think it needs some evaluation. The only part that makes it tough is who goes out of the starting lineup?

“And I don’t know, maybe we’ll get to a point where we move it around a little bit. I kind of had grand visions of that when I took the job, that we have like eight starters moving around a little bit.”

The dilemma of who moves out of the starting lineup is a big one as the current starting five appears to be the most logical, but the idea of a rotating starting lineup with Powell drawing in from time to time depending on matchup does sound interesting, especially because Powell already views himself as something of the team’s sixth starter.

“Obviously it’s nice to start. I see myself as a starter in this league,” Powell said. “So every time I get a chance to go out there and start it shows that I can fill that role and I try to take advantage of that. Obviously, I’ve always been a team guy, to focus on what the team needs of me in whatever role that is, and the last three games prior to this one I really looked at myself to see what I could do better.”

Like a broken record every season, monitoring how Powell is utilized will once again be interesting as the season progresses.

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Many, many reserve wing options

During training camp and pre-season, Nurse mentioned wanting to have a certain level of role certainty at the No. 8 spot of his rotation, specifically narrowing in with, preferably, a three-and-D wing there.

So far there hasn’t been close to an answer yet as to who will take that role and run with it.

Nearly every reserve wing option at Nurse’s disposal has been used, with Matt Thomas getting more consistent looks in the first two games, DeAndre’ Bembry getting some quick glances here and there, Stanley Johnson being used more heavily over the past two games, Terence Davis getting his first taste of action Thursday playing 16 solid minutes, Yuta Watanabe even playing a little over nine minutes Thursday as well, and even rookie Malachi Flynn and Paul Watson Jr. finally seeing the floor Thursday in garbage time.

In other words, it’s a complete jumbled mess at that spot and Nurse just appears to be going with whatever he feels is the right matchup at the moment because no one has impressed enough to stake claim to that rotation spot.

It’s why we’ve been seeing funky lineups like the Kyle Lowry-Johnson-Chris Boucher-Davis-Watanabe look. This was just one example of a plethora of strange lineups used Thursday and given the fact Nurse is still searching, we can probably expect more weirdness in the games to come.

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Can’t centre in on a consistent centre

Another question mark Nurse is dealing with is how to divvy up minutes between his three centres.

Aron Baynes has been the starter, and while that likely won’t change, the question of whether he’ll end up playing starter-type minutes over the course of a full game is worth asking.

This is because Baynes has had ups and downs to start the season much like his other three counterparts, leading to Nurse also looking for an answer at the five spot as well — both with the primary and secondary unit.

“I think it’s going to be a game-to-game type of thing,” said Nurse. “I think Aron’s had two good games and two not so good games so he’s batting about .500. Chris has had a couple of real good games, but Alex [Len] has had a couple of good ones, too.

“I don’t know, I think we’re going to feel it out, feel it through and just keep evaluating.”

Len, in particular, looked to take a big step in the Raptors’ centre battle Thursday, finishing with 11 points and drilling three triples. All this production came in the third quarter and the form on Len’s three-point stroke looked exceptional, with the Raptors even appearing to run a set play to set up a corner three for the seven-footer.

“I was looking like crazy for a corner three-point shooter and I can’t believe I couldn’t find one and there it was tonight, Alex Len,” Nurse joked Thursday after the game. “He made some big shots for us tonight and I’m just glad he goes out there and competes, he looks like he’s getting more comfortable.”

Whether that comfort Len is feeling leads to more consistent opportunity is anyone’s guess at the moment, but at the very least his name will be in the hat as Nurse continues to search for consistency.

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